If you ask people to describe themselves as leaders, a word that often comes up is coach.
How you coach can define what the working relationship will look like with your team. Great coaches typically have people that stay longer, find more purpose in their work and produce higher results. Here are some tips to help you become a great coach worth following and landmines to avoid setbacks and traps.
Avoiding landmines in coaching
There are times when either we come at the conversation wrong, or it takes a turn that we weren’t expecting, and we find ourselves making the coaching personal in nature. When you center your coaching on yourself you have lost focus on the reason for being there – to help the other person grow.
Stay away from comparisons to others: It seems simple enough to say, “You aren’t doing as well as Sally,” but you’ve just made the conversation about Sally and the person you are coaching. This line of dialog can quickly derail a conversation and cause more long-term harm than good. Instead, focus on the behavior or problem and coach that accordingly. It doesn’t matter what others are doing or not doing. The conversation should stay on point with the topic at hand. When I am coaching a group of leaders about their team, I typically think of the people we are discussing as books on a shelf. We pull one down, open it up and discuss it, and then put it back on the shelf, this way there is a clean mental break between people. I also avoid visuals that show groups of people together until the very end.
Keep the distractions away: Everyone is busy. For the best coaching to happen, you and the other person need to be as distraction-free as possible. That means silencing phones, stepping away from the CPU, or moving away from a loud area, so you can both be fully focused on the conversation. The one that typically gets me is my smartwatch. It’s meant to help you not reach for your phone as much, but people will pick up when you glance down at your watch and misinterpret that you mean that you are not interested in what they have to say.
Avoid Interrupting: Deceptively simple, but harder to live out, avoid interrupting as the person is sharing information or their thoughts. You may want to jump in with an immediate rebuttal or “fix” to the comment but hold back and let the person finish sharing. This will help keep engagement levels higher during the conversation.
Running diagnostics as coaching: You’ve encountered the diagnostic approach often at work. “Have you tired A? What about B? Have you tried C or D?” This is a great approach when it comes to problem-solving but is less effective as coaching. Your goal should be to ask open-ended questions that invite the person to come up with their own ideas.
Tips for great coaching
Here are some tips to keep your coaching conversation on track and impactful with the other person.
Start from their perspective: Before you have the coaching conversation start your line of thought from their perspective. It may seem counterintuitive but listen more than you talk as you coach others. Without listening with the intention to learn and understand, you’re unlikely to understand the full perspective needed in order to help the person reach the best outcome.
Be prepared: The slogan of the Boys Scouts is a great one when it comes to coaching. Come prepared to coach conversations with data, information, and feedback from appropriate parties. Without structure and information, the coaching conversation can devolve into just a casual conversation that the person quickly forgets.
Be honest and caring with feedback: It’s imperative to give someone honest feedback when you are coaching. They deserve to hear the truth, where they currently stand, and what the next steps are to move forward. Share takeaways and feedback honestly but remember to do so with care. Honesty can sometimes hurt, but the blow can be softened with a caring and empathetic approach.
Use questions to your advantage: Lean into open-ended questions to help the person grow in their problem-solving skills and as an outlet to strengthen their own internal motivators.
Ask questions from a curious point of view to understand the other person’s standpoint.
Ask great questions, but don’t ask endless questions. Once you get into the right area for the next steps, begin to help the conversation to a positive conclusion.
Avoid asking questions to an answer that you already have with a little room for variations, (think compliance, safety, etc.) In those circumstances, it’s better to give the person the answer immediately instead of making them jump through a bunch of proverbial hoops to arrive at the same answer you had in the first place.
Be the coach to others that you’ve always wanted for yourself. Be timely, actionable, caring, and specific as you help your people reach their fullest potential.
As leaders, or leadership teams, start to think about how to handle performance on their team for the first time, they often focus on who they deem as underperformers first. As a result, you’ll see leaders begin targetting their underperformers openly or subvertly. Mark Zuckerberg warned his employees that they were “turning up the heat” on underperformers and added, “You might decide this place isn’t for you, and that’s OK with me.”
Not exactly inspiring for an employee or for the leader that has to carry out the direction from their CEO. Great talent wants to be involved with great leadership and if you handle underperforms the wrong way, you may get rid of your least effective people, but your best people may bail on you as well. It’s important to tackle underperformance professionally and consistently if everyone.
Be clear on expectations from the beginning and make them realistic
Your expectations and goals for every employee should be crystal clear. Ask yourself:
What do they have to do to be considered effective in their role?
What are the expectations on their behaviors and how they conduct their work and interact with others? (Look to your values here)
What resources do they need to be successful?
Are the goals realistic to meet?
This clarity helps immensely as you lead others. Setting a consistent cadence of conversation also helps. Performance conversations are less likely to bubble up or to be a surprise for anyone, which reduces drama and stress in the workplace. Think about how a conversation would go if there were no ambiguity in what the person needed to do and you were checking in with them on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
If a person is struggling to meet expectations ask them for their input on the why. The goal may not be realistic to hit under the current situation or there may be outside factors that are influencing the work that you hadn’t considered before.
Always talk to the person before taking action
I’ve shared over the years about my interaction with leaders who just wanted to let go of people without having a conversation. I get it; they are frustrated with their limits and just want to move on. A mature leader knows that you’ve got to have those crucial conversations with others. They will actively listen (Show 303), and attempt to understand the root cause of the issue.
Trust is very important to help this conversation land in a positive place. When the person feels psychologically safe they will be more likely to open up and share why they are struggling.
There are a few types of underperformers and the approach to these people changes depending on what their root issue is.
Blockers: These are people that do just enough to get by, but how they do their work is not aligned with expectations. They are also typically resistant to any kind of change that impacts them. Help these see the impact of their decisions on themselves and others. Frame up the challenges in a way that matters to them. They likely highly value respect and honor towards themselves, helping them understand how their actions are counter to that value as they deal with others.
Inconsistent Contributor: These are people exactly as the name describes – inconsistent. Perhaps it’s in the work that they do or you are not sure what version you are going to get of that person on a daily basis. Dig in here to understand the root cause, tighten up your cadence of check-ins and get agreement from them that they understand expectations. Call out the inconsistently plainly. It is also helpful to provide extra support and resources to help get them back on track; this could be a mentor, learning opportunities, or additional headcount support.
Detractors: These people may not be a great fit for the organization or in the extreme case, they are all out sabotaging the team’s success. Make sure that you have partnered with your upline leaders and HR partners here as you walk this path. Have a solidly written performance improvement plan with dates on expectations.
Potential Gems: These people may have been great and could be great again, but today they may not be in the right role. In these circumstances, help the person find a role internally that better aligns with their gifts, talents, and aspirations. They want to do their best and likely love the organization, but perhaps they took on a role because someone asked them to, or they didn’t realize the full scope of what the role would entail.
Overall your underperformer will likely fall into the inconsistent contributor category with detracts and blockers being more rare and potential gems being the rarest.
Address your underperformers with empathy and care as you help them back on track with expectations. Remember that they are people too and still deserve to be treated with professionalism and respect. Addressing the underperformance the right way ensures that you and the other person have the best chance to turn things around.